French legend says that after the death of Jesus, Mary Magdelene and several disciples escaped persecution from Herod in Palestine by boarding a small boat (with no sail and no rudder) and setting off across the Mediterranean Sea. Miraculously, they made it to the southern coast of France and landed in Les-Saintes-Maries-de-Mer, between Marseille and Montpellier. Mary and the disciples became the first Christians to set foot in France. Mary preached alongside her brother Lazarus in Marseilles before settling in a cave on the side of a steep cliff in the Sainte-Baume mountains south of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume. Known today as Grotte de Sainte-Marie-Madeleine (The Sainte-Marie-Madeleine Cave) or Le Sanctuaire de la Sainte-Baume (The Sainte-Baume Sanctuary), she lived out her life there devoting herself to prayer, contemplation and solitude. Several hundred years after her death her cave had become a famous Christian pilgrimage site. Today it is still a very popular destination for believers and non-believers alike, having been turned into an actual church. Fascinated by the legend and the history I paid the site a visit not too long ago.
[more info after the photo gallery]
A Little History
As you might expect, there are elaborate and conflicting accounts of exactly how much of the early history transpired (The Da Vinci Code anyone?). The most widely accepted story says that after landing in southern France Mary Magdalene went to Marseille where she began to convert the local population to Christianity. In 47AD she retired to the cave in the Saint-Baume mountains where it is said she lived for over thirty years. There seems to be little record of what happened for the next several hundred years. A monastery is known to have existed at the site as early as 415AD, established by Jean Cassien, the patriarch of the monks from the Saint Victor Abbey of Marseilles.
By 500AD the cave had become a pilgrimage site and was guarded over by the Cassianist friars. Two popes visited the site, Pope Stephen VI in 816AD and Pope John VIII in 878AD. In the 13th century the Cassianist friars were replaced by Dominican monks and over the next several hundred years the pilgrimage movement continued to grow. In 1254 King Saint Louix IX visited the cave on his way back from his first crusade in the Holy Land.
By the 15th century the pilgrimage to the cave at Sainte-Baume was the third most popular in Christendom (behind Rome and The Way of Saint James). Over the years several popes, kings and princes made the pilgrimage. Because so many French kings came to visit the site, the path which leads to the cave was baptized under the name “The Path Of Kings,” a title it still bears today.
Unfortunately, under the reign of King Louix XV devotion for Mary Magdelene began to decline. The site was pillaged during the French Revolution in the late 1700s and the Dominican monks departed. In 1821 Louis XVII erected a chapel at the cave. The Dominican monks would return in 1859 at the behest of Father Lacordaire who oversaw the construction of the Hostellerie de la Saint Baume, a new hotel at the foot of the mountains. A ceremony held on May 20, 1860 draws huge crowds, with people traveling from all over France to attend. This was the beginning of a real renewal of pilgrimages to the site.
From 1900 to 1932 Father Vayssière became the guardian of the cave and responsible for many developments at the site. Following the laws separating the churches and the state of France , the cave became the property of the town of Plan d’Aups in 1910. In 1914 the stairs leading to the cave were repaired and restored. The cave itself was closed in 1997 for renovations and reopened in 2002. A few years later, in 2008, the Hostellery was placed in the hands of the Dominicans. Today the cave remains under the watch of eight Dominican brothers who care for it with reverence and passion.
Mary Magdelene’s Body
Around 1050 the monks of the Abbey of la Madaleine in Vézelay (far from Sainte-Baume in central France) claimed that they had discovered the remains of Mary Magdelene. At first this was merely an assertion, but in 1265 the monks held a dramatic, public showing and in 1267 they took the bones to the King of France who venerated them.
However, only a few years later, on December 12, 1279 the little village of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume was transformed by the discovery of another supposed burial site and a sarcophagus in the crypt of Saint-Maximin. The shrine was said to have been found intact with an explanatory inscription stating why the relics had been hidden.
“The body of the very dear and venerable Mary Magdelene has been secretly and during the night transferred from her alabaster sepulcher into the marble one, and from which the body of Sidoine has been removed, so that it be more hidden and safe from the aforesaid perfidious nation. Here is the body of Holy Mary Magdelene graved in a wooden tablet enveloped by a wax globe.”Writings found in the sarcophagi
Over the years Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume gradually replaced Vézelay in both popularity and acceptance when it came to what was considered the final resting place of Mary Magdelene.
Mary Magdelene’s cave lies about two hours from Vence. It’s an easy drive, most of it on the A8 motorway. At the town of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume you head south on the D560A, the D560 and finally the D80. You’ll arrive at the Hostellerie de la Sainte Baume and just across the street is the Office de Tourisme. I spent a bit of time there and got a small brochure about the cave and the route up to it.
It’s a nice little hike up to the cave, the trail is wide, very well marked and impeccably maintained. It’s about two kilometers to the cave from the Office de Tourisme and not too steep though it is mostly all uphill. There are actually two routes which you can take to the site, le Chemin des Rois and le Chemin du Canapé, one circling around from the left and the other from the right. I chose the more famous, the “Path of Kings” for my trip up and then came down the other on my way back.
There are signs at the start of the trail and a couple of nice informational plaques, though they are in French. I imagine it will take most visitors between 30 minutes and an hour to reach the cave. The trail is very pretty, lots of big trees and shade along the way. It lies in the Forêt Domaniale Sainte Baume (the National Sainte Baume Forest). I was there on a December morning and it was a bit cold, especially since the entire trail is shaded by the cliff at that time of the day. There are a few small monuments situated along the route.
Eventually you’ll come to a large set of stairs that lead to an entranceway with a wooden door. Behind the entrance is a large replication of the crucification scene. Some more stairs and then you arrive in a large courtyard with buildings all around. On the side of the cliff is the entrance to the cave, a beautiful large double door with stone steps.
I was expecting a big cave with maybe a monument or statue or two. Instead I found an entire church built inside the cave and a fair amount of structures built along side it. All up very high on the side of a spectacular cliff! They have basically sealed up the cave, built a door and inside is just about everything you’d find in a typical church. Very cool.
The church is not especially well lit, but it’s easy to make everything out. You are, after all, inside an actual cave. Taking good photographs is a bit tough. There are some gorgeous stained glass windows, a large altar, another smaller altar, several statues and an area downstairs where people can light candles and make offerings. There’s a lot to see and I spent a fair amount of time exploring every little nook and cranny.
After you finish your visit at the cave you can take another trail up to the top of the cliff (which, of course, I did) and find another small chapel, la Chapelle du Saint-Pilon, that sits right on the edge of the cliff. At an altitude of 994 meters, it is definitely worth the extra effort to make it all the way to the top and the view is spectacular. An orientation table is located nearby to give you a good lay of the land.
Basilique Sainte Marie-Madeleine
About 20 kilometers north of the cave is the town of Saint-Maximim-la-Sainte-Baume. In the town is the Sainte Marie-Madeline Basilica, a huge, 16th century church that is considered to be the most important Gothic-style religious building in all of Provence. It’s definitely worth a side-trip to see the basilica if you’re visiting the cave.
There is a skull in the crypt of the basilica which is claimed to be that of Mary Magdalene. It is housed behind glass in a weird kind of metal headdress and once a year they bring it out and parade it through the town. There are also a few bones, rib bones and a femur, said to belong to Mary Magdalene.
Is Any Of This True?
Well, that depends, of course, on who you ask. Genetic testing of some hairs in the reliquary confirmed that they were from a woman of possible Jewish ancestry, but the tests did not confirm the identity or age of the woman in any way, shape or form. Now, I’m not saying I believe a single word of all this “Mary Magdalene in France” legend, but it sure does make for a great story, a very cool church and a wonderful little adventure.
Where: Sainte-Baume (Google Maps)
When: All year round
Phone: Office de Tourisme de Plan d’Aups Sainte Baume: 04 42 72 32 72